The recent mass shooting in Aurora, Illinois, in which an employee killed five co-workers and injured others just after he was terminated, serves as a grim reminder that workplace violence can erupt when employees learn they no longer have a job – especially when terminations occur on-premises and proximity to other employees.
In response to this reality, the Hillard Heintze Threat + Violence Risk Management team conducts threat assessments on individuals who may have the motive, intent and capability to commit an act of targeted violence (where a known or knowable attacker selects his target prior to an attack) and provides guidance and advisory support for safe terminations. We strongly encourage all businesses to adopt this process, as it follows prevention-oriented best practices and can effectively protect the company, its employees and its assets.
As part of this process, we often encounter hesitation and resistance from executives reluctant to allocate resources to violence prevention efforts related to an employee they know won’t be on the payroll roster at the end of the week. What they don’t realize is that the risk of violence from an aggrieved former employee can last – and even increase – long after the worker’s termination date.
Erasing Skepticism about Investments in Workplace Violence Prevention Ahead of Termination
Our clients tend to ask about the value of conducting this additional work for two distinct reasons:
- Cost: It is already costly to companies to terminate an employee and it may seem unnecessary – or infeasible given budget flexibility – to pour more resources into the process. However, we know firsthand that the financial consequences of a potentially fatal event will be significant, and the loss of life tragic and irrecoverable. Moreover, most companies already have capable Human Resources professionals in place who can leverage their roles to mitigate potential situations of concern.
- Background Checks: Sometimes our clients emphasize that they already did a “background check” when the person was hired and that there was “nothing of interest” in the findings. While that may have been true at the time, matters can change quickly, and the background check may not have been thorough enough to catch potential red flags in the first place. Just as important, the areas we focus on during a pre-employment background check typically will be different than our focus before or shortly after termination.
Case in Point: Lesson from the Field
We have seen firsthand what can happen in serious termination situations in which our preventive strategies and recommendations were not heeded. One such case involved an employer terminating an employee for anger management issues by invoking its zero-tolerance policy on prohibited conduct. The employer wanted an immediate termination and limited our involvement to providing physical security. Our surveillance team witnessed the fired employee depart the office campus and immediately drive to a gun store to purchase a weapon.
Fortunately, we were able to intervene with the help of the fired employee’s family members to get a mental health commitment followed by court-ordered mental health evaluation at a hospital, but not without causing a traumatic effect on employee morale and sense of wellbeing, as well as significant financial impact from closing the facilities until we were able to safely and effectively remove the weapons. He had a second gun he brought from home.
While cost concerns and the relative efficacy of a company’s background investigations are relevant matters, these factors pale in comparison to ensuring the safety of employees.
Watch Out for the Warning Signs
Before we implement a direct violence risk evaluation or indirect threat assessment – both of which include a targeted background investigation into a subject of interest – we often look for early warning signs or marked changes in behavior that, if left unchecked, could potentially escalate into an act of violence. While not all to-be-terminated employees will explicitly exhibit early warnings signs, these are often a way to predict future behavior and in turn, focus resources. Early warning signs could include social withdrawal, depression or other signs of mental illness, substance abuse or suicidal ideation, among others.
Conduct a Targeted Investigation
Before a new prospect is hired, a typical background screening includes a search for criminal records, the sex offender registry, and verification of education and past employment. Some companies go even more in depth than that; others review much less.
While these are important steps, our investigation of someone of concern before or just after termination is typically more nuanced and targeted. We look for information in open sources and public records about the individual’s current life situation: who do they live with; are they going through a divorce or having relationship issues; are they suffering from medical illness or having family issues or financial problems; to name a few. We often wouldn’t find reference to these issues through criminal, education or employment records.
Civil litigation is also a key search we focus on – and one that is often skipped during pre-employment background checks – because this is where we might find references to a divorce, restraining orders or orders of protection naming our subject. We might also discover in civil court filings that the subject is or was the subject of a suit related to financial issues, a filing for bankruptcy or a foreclosure or eviction. In one case, we found a prior Petition for Workplace Violence Restraining Order – filed in civil court – naming our subject that laid out his past pattern of behavior with a previous employer and helped inform how we and the client dealt with the subject just after a contentious termination. In that instance, we knew which tactics he had used in the past based on our review of civil court filings and the fact that another previous employer had experienced the same issues with him.
Equally as important is a search for and review of the subject’s social media footprint or evidence of family or friends posting about the subject. This may tell us in real-time or near-real-time what the subject may be doing, where they may be located and whether they are in close proximity or en route to our client. This may also provide clues to their mindset, or noteworthy comments that others might be posting about them.
Surprisingly – or maybe not so surprising today when people share so much online – we’ve had subjects of interest post online copies of their mental health records and prescription pill bottles, as well as photos of themselves depicting an altered appearance, the inside of their residence, guns, drug use or signs of erratic or risk-taking behavior. All of these would be of interest to us and the employer.
By using a combination of investigative skills, corroboration and common sense, we can make a thoughtful assessment of the threat an individual may pose to our client. Once an assessment is made, a plan can be developed and implemented to monitor the individual and to intervene, as appropriate, to prevent an attack.